Q&A with Egypt’s head of censorship, Ahmed Awaad
Ahmed Awaad is the head of Egypt’s censorship board and works as undersecretary at the Ministry of Culture. He is also a film director and lecturer at the Cairo Academy of Art.
Awaad has made fiction films such as Kazalek fi Zamalek (2001), Kalem Mama (2003), Aurid Khalan (2005), Katkout (2006) and Bon Soirée (2010). He has also directed documentary films including Youm al-Tahady (2001), Youm min Omr al-Watan (2003) and Malhmet Shaab (2002).
Here, Maxa Zoller asks him about the job and some recent decisions.
Maxa Zoller: Ahmed Awaad, you are a film director and activist. Could you tell us how you got involved with the film censorship board?
Ahmed Awaad: The Minister of Culture Dr Mohamed Sabra asked the chairman of the Academy of Arts if he could recommend someone for the post. When he called me on the phone I refused to talk about this for one week because as a film director I had a lot of problems with censorship myself. Then the great Egyptian film director and my hero, Ali Badrakhan, told me: “All your life you have been asking for change and when it is at the tip of your fingers you refuse! Why?” This got me thinking.
But I had two questions. First I asked them if they were sure I was going to be the right man for the position. I told them that I am not going to be the system’s hand and go against people with different kinds of views and opinions. Dr Sabra was surprised and told me: “We are not in need of a system’s hand.” Secondly, I told him I am one of the people that led the strike in the Ministry of Culture last year. I was sleeping in the Ministry of Culture for 23 days. My concern was that if I accept the position it might look like a kind of ‘present’. But he assured me that this was not the case.
MZ: What have you achieved in the three months since you became the head of the censorship board?
AA: I have passed five Egyptian films; Bad al-Tufan (After the Flood, 2012) by Hazem Metwaly, a film criticizing the Ministry of Interior, and Hashem Issawy’s Al Khoroug min Al Qahira (“Cairo Exit,” 2010), a film that was forbidden because of sensitive issues concerning Copts and Muslims in Egypt. The film was forbidden for three years — I passed it after five minutes. Then there is Lamoaakhza (Excuse my French) by Amr Salama. It was forbidden for four years — twice, once as a script [written in 2010] and once as a film. It will be in the theaters tomorrow [January 21]. Ahmad Abdalla’s Farsh w Ghatta (Rags and Tatters, 2013), a film that is very critical of the current system, has also passed the censorship.
MZ: What do you consider your biggest challenge right now?
AA: The biggest challenge is to change the mentality of the people working in censorship. I am trying to make them accept the situation regarding the new constitution. There are six articles concerning cultural rights, so we have to change the law. Most importantly, we have to stop putting directors and scriptwriters in prison. We have to stop that! The articles concerning the rights of culture are numbers 47, 48, 49, 50, 65, 67 and 69.
MZ: Could you elaborate on the ways in which the new constitution mandates new legal conditions? Could you say what you envision in terms of new censorship policies?
AA: I want to change the law concerning age restrictions. I want to align them with European regulations. Right now, what we are discussing is whether 12 years of age in Europe is the same as 12 years of age in Egypt. I am also trying to shift the responsibility for the film classification in terms of age (12+ and 18+) to the family. If you allow your son to see this it's your responsibility, but it’s my responsibility to tell you what's in the film. Film is an educational tool. To discuss the problems between Copts and Muslims in Egyptian film in my opinion is a way to solve the problem. If the censorship relies entirely on the government then there is a problem. There is a fine line between wanting to protect the people and stopping new opinions from being expressed.
MZ: Speaking of family, there has been a lot of talk about Hany Fawzy’s new film Asrar Aaeleya (Family Secrets, 2013) about a young gay man. Could you elaborate on the problem of censorship in this film?
AA: Before I became head of censorship board there was already a long history with this film. In February 2013 the board of censorship asked for eight changes to be made. The director and the production company signed this agreement. When I became head of the censorship board I discovered that they had shot the old version, not the new, agreed one. Because I am a film director myself I decided not to send Fawzy to court, which according to the old law I was supposed to do.
I decided to work on the film instead. I asked for 13 changes: 12 words and one scene. The Egyptian word for ‘gay’ [the Egyptian word for ‘gay’ is a severe insult, whereas the word for ‘homosexual’ is accepted] and one scene in which two men are in bed together should be changed. Then what happened, is that for the first time a filmmaker asked the censorship board for a letter of refusal. I refused to write the letter of refusal. I did not want to forbid the film. They started a campaign in newsletters saying that the director Ahmed Awaad refused “Family Secrets.” After three weeks I gave him the letter. With that letter the filmmaker went to the Lagnet Tasalomat (complaints committee). This was in mid-November. By mid-January he had received permission on the condition of three changes. He made these three changes, received permission and tomorrow [January 21] there will be a special screening.
MZ: Are you expecting any problems?
AA: Yes. But, I really hope we will not have too many.
MZ: We should talk about the second film, which has been subject to a lot of rumors concerning censorship; Jehane Noujaim’s The Square (2013).
AA: I gave permission for this film to be screened at last November’s Panorama of the European Film Festival, which is organized by Marianne Khoury. Marianne told me that the festival copy did not arrive in time and neither the director nor the producer attended the festival. She issued a letter for the media stating these reasons for the cancelation of the screening. But then they are saying in the propaganda for the film: The Square is a forbidden film. They are liars! It’s not a forbidden film!
What they should do is to come to the censorship office and ask for the permission for general screening. There is a difference between festival screenings and general screenings. For a general, ticketed screening, you need to pay for the rights from the actors’ syndicate, the musicians’ syndicate and the cinema’s syndicate. That is a worldwide law. But for a film competition like a festival there is no need for these papers. With Villa 69 (2013, by Ayten Amin), for example, they had to cut a word [“son of a bitch”] for the general screening, but for a special screening at a festival there was no censorship.
MZ: The Square has been Oscar-nominated for best documentary feature.
AA: I had a surprise yesterday. Marianne Khoury visited me in my office to ask for the papers she needed to distribute the film in Egypt. I asked her why. For an Egyptian film there is no need for a distributor in Egypt because the film producer can distribute the film directly. Khoury told me that she has a contract stating that she will be the distributor for The Square. She showed me a copy of the contract between Misr International, Marianne Khoury’s company, and an American company.
MZ: What you are saying is that legally speaking The Square is an American film.
AA: Yes, the lawyer in my office asked Marianne Khoury to authorize the contract in the Egyptian embassy in the US.
MZ: The fabrication of rumors is excellent advertising. Have you come across this marketing tool, if we can call it that, before?
AA: It’s propaganda. Like with Family Secrets. I had a live telephone conversation with the producer of The Square, Karim Amer, on ONTV, during which I asked him three times: “Did you come to my office to ask for permission and we refused the film?” I asked him three times and by the third time he said no. It’s a way. Usually they say the film is forbidden in Egypt so that the international festivals are waiting for the film. They did that in the past, I know of a few cases. But the difference is that we have changes now. Why else would I have allowed for the five films to pass censorship? And they addressed very sensitive topics.
MZ: As a film director, where do see new developments in Egyptian film? Are there young filmmakers that are marking a new path in filmmaking, crafting new ways of marrying politics and aesthetics and creating new forms of narrative?
AA: Amr Salama is an important upcoming director. He made Asmaa (2011), a film about AIDS and now La Moaakhza.